Diversity and Democracy

Preparing Public Sector Innovators through Experiential Learning

To help solve our world’s most challenging problems, our country needs to build a twenty-first-century public sector that is more adaptive, innovative, and resilient—a public sector that can smartly use data and leverage technology to engage citizens in developing and implementing solutions at scale. Doing this requires training a new generation of public-sector innovators who have the skills and the tools necessary to actively and creatively generate solutions to the problems we face, including the ability to apply the values associated with diversity and inclusion. These leaders will need to value civic engagement and understand that diversity is not binary—poor or rich, majority or minority, public or private, Democrat or Republican—but rather is multidimensional, accounting for all aspects of race, class, ideas, beliefs, perspectives, and experiences. Hence, students need learning environments where they can acquire the skills, tools, and knowledge necessary to advance innovation in a diverse democracy. Institutions of higher education have an opportunity to provide experiential learning pedagogies that challenge students to think in new ways.

Innovation in Government

I learned firsthand the power of engagement across disciplines and perspectives from my experiences in the private, nonprofit, and public sectors, especially the federal government. I have had the privilege of working in government twice in my career: first as an international economist at the US Department of Treasury, and then as deputy assistant to President Barack Obama at the White House. In the latter position, I worked with a team to create—among many other initiatives—the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation (SICP). We created SICP because we realized that to solve the social challenges of our time, our government needed to operate differently across functions, from procurement to recruitment to community engagement. We recognized that innovation in government is critical for change. Innovators need not only to solve today’s problems, but also to anticipate the problems of tomorrow.

To achieve impact, innovation can take many forms. It can involve giving old ideas a modern twist, codesigning new ideas with communities, or challenging current norms and structures. At the White House, I saw social innovation take on a life of its own, with some incredible results. Through SICP, we created innovation funds across government, starting with the Social Innovation Fund; forged new public-private partnerships like the Let’s Move campaign in collaboration with civil organizations, philanthropic entities, and businesses; and used technology to better connect with citizens and improve services, as through the We the People petition website.

We were proud to have created new tools and models for engagement. But tools are not enough to create a twenty-first-century government. During my tenure leading the Technology, Innovation and Government Reform group within President Obama’s 2008 transition team, we made civic engagement the core focus of our efforts to institutionalize a culture of innovation. We wanted to create a culture in government where solutions were human-centric—where a constant and iterative process of learning moved the government beyond compliance and toward outcomes. We sought to embed this outcomes mindset in government by inculcating a new way of thinking that emphasized listening to and learning from communities. We invested in what was already working in communities and scaled what works. This mindset now informs the work of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University. 

Education at the Nexus of Theory and Practice

At the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, we conceive of our work as located at the nexus of theory and practice. We believe that colleges and universities must be agile and flexible in order to instruct and embolden the next generation of public sector leaders. These leaders will need to be able to think critically not just about the world as it is, but about the world as it can be. Rather than just teaching solutions to existing problems, we teach approaches to problem-solving that can be adapted and analyzed in rapidly changing contexts. Experiential learning opportunities, which lie at the critical intersection of theoretical training and practical engagement, are important for preparing the next generation of public sector innovators.

The Beeck Center offers experiential learning opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. Our signature fellowship program, GU Impacts, sends Georgetown undergraduates to work with partner organizations in the United States and around the world in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Open to undergraduates across Georgetown’s four schools, GU Impacts prepares students to engage in complex and diverse environments beyond the university setting. Our students work with clients to solve real-world problems at scale. These problems, which have no predetermined solutions, require students to ask questions and generate new iterations of their proposed approaches. In the summer of 2016, GU Impacts fellows are working with the Center for Civic Innovation in Atlanta, Georgia. They are researching existing models of social entrepreneurship in US cities and adapting those models and best practices to meet the needs of local Atlanta communities. In Managua, Nicaragua, our fellows are interning with Mochila Digital—a social enterprise under the Inventtus International Corporation. They are exploring the role of technology in bridging the education gap and increasing access to education for low-income students. 

We also offer courses at the Beeck Center. I teach a course titled Social Impact@Scale, where we engage students in putting theory into practice. Originally launched in 2015 as a noncredit learning opportunity, the course generated more than seventy applications within thirty-six hours from across Georgetown’s schools. In 2016, we made it a full-time, for-credit offering. In this course, students work with an organization for a full semester on a problem of scale. In 2015, we partnered with Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines to help scale a children’s nutrition program that provides meals to twenty thousand public elementary school students each day. Ateneo needs to scale this program to one hundred thousand students each day. Georgetown students provided recommendations on how Ateneo could expand this program, partnering with the government, the private sector, and the community. In spring 2016, we partnered with the Mann Deshi Foundation in Mhaswad, India, to scale the reach of its financial services training program from two hundred thousand to one million women. To complement their studies at Georgetown, we sent a team of students to the Philippines and India through GU Impacts to test their assumptions and learn from experience. We also partner with graduate school professors to provide design thinking as part of their semester courses. 

GU Impacts, Social Impact@Scale, and our design thinking partnerships were created to engage today’s students. These students—tomorrow’s leaders—are determined to take charge of their own futures; they are highly entrepreneurial and interested in designing their own courses of study (Northeastern News 2014). They learn through theory and practice. One of our GU Impacts fellows, Etana, exemplifies this point. During her interview for GU Impacts she pointed out that she was less successful in structured, lecture-style classes where learning was primarily based on memorization, but thrived in classes where she had more room for creativity and individualized learning. She demonstrated humility, self-awareness, and introspection. She is exactly the type of leader we want to cultivate. Higher education needs to look beyond traditional indicators of success and cultivate more students like Etana who seek out challenges, are willing to go outside of their comfort zones, can navigate ambiguous situations, and are willing to work hard.

Students’ enthusiasm for the learning opportunities at Georgetown is a testament to their desire for critical engagement with the world. By working to solve real-world problems for organizations—both nonprofit and for profit—students are learning how to collaborate in teams, use analytical skills, make decisions, and learn from failure. They also understand that in order to have impact at scale they need to better understand the full ecosystem, including the role of nongovernmental organizations, government, the private sector, and individuals. 

Connecting Student Aspirations to Public Needs

The world is rapidly evolving at a pace faster than expected. To meet the promise of innovation, we need to invest in a generation of leaders who are creative, have the courage to take risks and try new approaches, and have the humility to understand and learn from communities. While Georgetown and other institutions are educating such a generation of leaders, these leaders need to see government as an opportunity for change. Students are often barraged with antigovernment rhetoric. Many see government as part of the problem (Pew Research Center 2015), not the solution. They consider civil servants to be ineffective, risk-averse, and bureaucratic, and many students resolve to pursue careers in the private sector. This aversion to government and to public service more broadly is dangerous. It increases civic disengagement and reduces the supply of talent needed to create a more agile and technology-literate government.

Fortunately, many young people are beginning to realize that the public sector is where real systems change can be effected. According to the 2014 Deloitte Millennial survey, three-quarters of millennials believe that government has the potential to address societal challenges. They also crave a sense of purpose and mission. Public service offers purpose. Yet though millennials still distrust government, they are engaged in their communities. In fact, they are reinventing civic engagement and creating new models of participation (Brady 2015). These models range from digital engagement through civic tech meetups to more direct participation in budgetary decision-making through participatory democracy.

Public service needs to be transformed. More experiential learning opportunities in higher education that provide students the ability to engage with real-world problems play a significant role in this transformation. At the same time, government needs to do more to attract young people to work in government, by creating on and off ramps to this work and by creating environments that enable government workers to look at problems creatively and engage collaboratively in designing solutions. GovConnect, an initiative in agencies like the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency, is one such program that allows federal employees to pursue projects of interest that are not necessarily part of their everyday responsibilities. Just imagine the possibility to attract and retain talent if more public agencies offered similar opportunities. 


As the world rapidly changes, we need students who have both theoretical training and practical knowledge, who can work in cross-disciplinary teams, and who understand how to leverage data and technology to serve communities. These students need to be prepared to address not only today’s problems, but also those of tomorrow: issues such as global governance in a digital world and the role of labor in an automated workforce. Institutions of higher education need to develop and support experiential learning opportunities that challenge students to draw on a diversity of experiences, perspectives, and disciplines in order to adequately bring these resources to bear on some of society’s greatest problems.

Such opportunities encourage students to think about social innovation and impact at both the global and local levels, and to eschew the comfort of parochialism and embrace the complexity of systems thinking. By participating in these opportunities, students learn how to account for and engage various factors, actors, and voices in order to solve and deliver solutions at scale. To train the next generation of public sector innovators, institutions of higher education must become labs for learning and engagement as they develop curricula that support an ecosystem of experiential learning opportunities that bridge gaps not only across disciplines, but also across social, political, and economic cleavages. By balancing theory and practice in pedagogy, educators can ensure a willing cadre of public sector innovators ready to tackle our most intractable problems. The future depends on how effectively we respond to the problems we face and to those we have not yet imagined.


Brady, J. D. 2015. “Reinventing Civic Engagement: A Conversation with Carol Coletta.” Case Foundation Blog, June 23. Accessed June 13, 2016. http://casefoundation.org/blog/millennial-civic-engagement/.

Deloitte. 2014. “The Millennial Survey 2014.” http://www2.deloitte.com/al/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/2014-millennial-survey-positive-impact.html.

Northeastern News. 2014. “‘Generation Z’ is Entrepreneurial, Wants to Chart Its Own Future.” Northeastern News, November 18. Accessed June 13, 2016. http://www.northeastern.edu/news/2014/11/generation-z-survey/.

Pew Research Center. 2015. “Trust in Government: 1958–2015.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, November 23. Accessed June 13, 2016. http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/1-trust-in-government-1958-2015/.

Sonal Shah is executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University.

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